This poor blog seems to have taken the back seat to a myriad of other activities for the last few weeks. Retirement is turning out to be as busy as my previous working life which I guess is a good thing. What with building websites for others, starting my own Chiang Mai tourist site and writing articles for International Living Magazine, the days are flying by. And then, on top of everything else, we decided to enrol in Thai language courses this year for two hours every day. We finished Conversation 1 before Christmas and are now more than halfway through Conversation 2. These are six-week sessions and the vocabulary is coming at us strong and quickly. Now, we are into Thai grammar which is a whole other ball game. As much as I learned with the High Speed Thai course that I purchased online a couple of years ago, I found that I needed interaction with a teacher and other students in a classroom situation to stay motivated.
Of course, the first question that comes up by many people is,”Why the hell do you want to bother studying Thai?”. Despite the many foreigners that decide to indulge in some sort of Thai lessons, there are also a huge number who think it is either a complete waste of time or too difficult. Then there is the group that pretends to be studying Thai in order to get an Education Visa. However, playing hooky is becoming more difficult with the recent crackdown by the ruling Junta. There is much more demand for accountability now for those that say they are going to school here.
Some feel that is is silly to spend the time learning a language that is only spoken by 65 million people, give or take a few, in the small country of Thailand. Learning French or Spanish or even Mandarin would make more sense, they say. And even if they do learn to speak a bit of Thai, very few go on to learn Thai reading and writing. Yes, it is a difficult language, thanks to the various tones and weird alphabet, but it sure as heck is easier than Mandarin! My wife and I struggled half-heartedly for a year or so while living in China and finally decided to just learn enough to get around town. I suppose the fact that we were not planning on living there forever combined with the fact that I was working with a totally English group of people added to the ease of giving up.
Even at the ripe old age of sixty-four, learning a new language is possible. Probably more difficult then when I was six, but still possible. I have always felt that it is difficult to understand another culture until you are able to speak a bit of their language. And the more you speak the language, the better you understand the people. I felt this way years ago as an English person growing up in the French province of Quebec. Learning to speak French gave me a much better insight to the people around me along with their music and culture.
Someone recently wrote on a local forum that once you learn Thai, you will be disappointed to realize that everyone around you is just talking about mundane stuff. The cost of their cell phone plan, what they ate last night, how their relationship is going, blah, blah, blah. Well, I hate to say it, but this is what ninety percent of the world around you is discussing, regardless of their language! Over the last sixty years, I have rarely heard anyone nearby discussing the Theory of Relativity or the incredible properties of the latest discovered element in the Periodic Table. It didn’t matter if I was in Canada, the US, Scotland, China or Thailand. Small talk is small talk wherever you find yourself. Hardly a reason not to learn a language.
So we are faithfully attending A.U.A., one of the many language schools in town, every day. They offer a wide variety of levels of English and Thai courses. I can’t really compare it to any other place in town since this is the only one I have attended. It is certainly giving us a good foundation in the language and provides ample speaking and listening experiences in a very small group situation. By the end of Conversation 1, we had learned over 800 words and now in the second level, we are adding to our vocabulary as well as working on more complex sentences.
We are far from bilingual, but I certainly feel more comfortable attempting to speak Thai with the people I come across on a daily basis. And from the expressions on their faces, it seems my feeble attempts at speaking the language are appreciated. Most go out of their way to help me or teach me new words. The other day I innocently asked the young clerk in our local 7-11 how to say “package” in Thai. She grabbed two packs of cigarettes from the shelf and spent the next few minutes teaching me the difference between the words for “soft pack” and “hard pack” for cigarettes! And making sure I could repeat them before I left!
Of course, knowing a bit of the language really helps once you get outside the city and into the nearby countryside and beyond. During our trip to Phayao a few months ago, if any of us had spoken a little more Thai, we might have ended up with two eggs each for breakfast instead of two chickens each! Like most countries, the further you move from the urban areas, the less English that is spoken. Not speaking a bit of the local language ends up closing a lot of doors and sometimes creates many misunderstandings, some of which don’t always end nicely.
I feel that as a guest in someone’s country, it is only common sense to attempt to learn a bit of the language. I am sure that most foreigners here would not be impressed if immigrants to their own home countries never bothered to learn their local language. So why should it be any different here? Yes, a lot of people do speak English in Chiang Mai but a lot more do not.
So we will continue to struggle to learn this strange language with hopes of one day being able to actually carry on a conversation. i can already carry on a simple conversation with the friendly Thai girl that I occasionally buy our dinners from at a local food court. That is a start! Every week I feel my confidence with the language increasing a bit. All I can say is it is always a hell of a lot easier to say something in another language than it is to understand somebody talking to you. But with practice, I know it is possible. I managed to do it with French so I should be able to do it with Thai. And maybe some day I will even be able to discuss the Theory of Relativity with my Thai neighbour.